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100% Renewable Electricity to Power the World by 2050? It's Happening, Study Says

Renewable Energy
100% Renewable Electricity to Power the World by 2050? It's Happening, Study Says
Windorah's Solar Farm dishes taken from the roadside (Diamantina Developmental Road) on a hot summer day. Aaronazz / Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

If you think a world powered by 100 percent renewable electricity—and significantly cheaper than today's—is an impossible dream, there's a surprise in store for you. A new study says it's already in the making.

A global transition to 100 percent renewable electricity, far from being a long-term vision, is happening now, the study says. It is the work of Finland's Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG), and was published at the UN climate change conference, COP23, which is meeting here.


The authors say a global electricity system based entirely on renewable energy will soon be feasible day in, day out, at every moment throughout the year, and would be more cost-effective than the existing system, based largely on fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Current renewable energy potential and technologies, crucially including storage to guarantee a constant power supply, can generate sufficient secure power to meet the entire world's electricity demand by 2050, they argue. With political backing it could happen even sooner.

The total levelized cost of electricity—roughly, the average cost—for 100 percent renewable electricity in 2050 would be €52/MWh (approximately $68/MWh), compared with €70/MWh (approximately $92/MWh) in 2015.

There is no silver bullet in their approach. Their model—the first of its kind, they say—simply simulates the most efficient energy supply with an optimal mix of technologies and locally available renewable resources.

A transition to 100 percent renewables would bring greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector down to zero and drastically reduce total losses in power generation. It would create 36 million jobs by 2050, the study says, 17 million more than the sector has today.

Cost saving

"There is no reason to invest one more dollar in fossil fuel or nuclear power production," said EWG president Hans-Josef Fell. "Renewable energy provides cost-effective power supply.

"All plans for further expansion of coal, nuclear, gas and oil must be stopped. More investment needs to be channelled into renewable energies and the necessary infrastructure . Everything else will lead to unnecessary costs and increasing global warming."

"A full decarbonization of the electricity system by 2050 is possible for lower system cost than today, based on available technology. Energy transition is no longer a question of technical feasibility or economic viability, but of political will," said Christian Breyer, lead author of the study and professor of solar economy at LUT.

His last point has been made many times already. Nearly five years ago researchers said Australia could by 2023 rely entirely on renewable energy—if it could summon up enough political will.

In 2014 another study said it was only a lack of political determination that was preventing the world switching away from fossil fuels altogether. And earlier this year, in one of his last presidential statements, Barack Obama said he believed the U.S. was engaged in an "irreversible shift" to clean energy.

Losses cut

The world population is expected to grow from 7.3 to 9.7 billion people this century. Global electricity demand is likely to double by mid-century, from 24,310 TWh in 2015 to around 48,800 TWh by 2050. Because of their rapidly falling costs, solar photovoltaic (PV) power and battery storage increasingly drive most of the electricity system.

Global greenhouse gas emissions would be significantly reduced, the study says, from about 11 GtCO2eq in 2015 to zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, as the total LCOE of the power system declines.

The losses in a 100 percent renewable electricity system are around 26 percent of total electricity demand, compared with the current system in which about 58 percent of the primary energy input is lost.

The study is a challenge for policymakers and politicians, the authors say, as it refutes an argument frequently used by critics of renewable fuels—that they cannot provide a full energy supply on an uninterruptible basis.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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The environmental disaster that Mauritius is facing is starting to appear as its pristine waters turn black, its fish wash up dead, and its sea birds are unable to take flight, as they are limp under the weight of the fuel covering them. For all the damage to the centuries-old coral that surrounds the tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean, scientists are realizing that the damage could have been much worse and there are broad lessons for the shipping industry, according to Al Jazeera.

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020

If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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